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D-day for Durham newspaper readers

The N&O prepares a major salvo in the newspaper wars

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Early Saturday morning, The News & Observer plans to launch an all-out invasion of the Bull City, dropping around 50,000 free copies of a brand new weekly, The Durham News, into driveways that have traditionally been the territory of the hometown daily. The free weekly will feature the kind of community news that typically has not fit in the daily Durham edition of the N&O. It will include columns, local news and sports--taking on The Herald-Sun head-to-head in the one area that's still strong for the ailing daily since Paxton Media's takeover. The Paducah, Ky.-based chain slashed a quarter of its staff, including 17 reporters, editors, feature writers, photographers and columnists, after taking ownership of the H-S in January. Saturday's home-delivery of about 50,000 copies marks an aggressive move on the part of the N&O, which has had a Durham County circulation of about 10,000 copies for the past several years. Those who subscribe to the N&O will find The Durham News bundled inside, but thousands of non-subscribers will find copies of the new weekly, along with the N&O's classifieds and auto sections, on their doorsteps. Overall circulation will quickly increase to 72,000--a total saturation of the Durham market and more than double The Herald-Sun's own Saturday circulation in Durham of approximately 31,500. This comes at the same time as a direct mail promotion of an introductory rate of $40 per year for new daily subscribers in Durham.

The News & Observer has responded quickly to the market shift brought on by the abrupt changes Paxton made, including picking up some newsroom staff tossed overboard by the new management. The N&O has hired former H-S columnist Jim Wise onto the staff, and he'll be a columnist in The Durham News. Flo Johnston, another Paxton victim, will become an N&O correspondent, and former H-S cartoonist John Cole will be making contributions to the section. And the paper will have two new staff writers, one focusing on local businesses and the other on schools and sports.

The N&O has also lured away longtime H-S reporter and current metro editor Mark Schultz, who will be in charge of both the Orange County bureau of the newspaper and its community paper there, The Chapel Hill News.

And The Herald-Sun cuts have continued. Last week, nine pressmen lost their jobs, leading some to wonder if that indicates the impending demise of The Chapel Hill Herald, the wrap-around section of all-Orange County news that is a mainstay of the paper's coverage there.

On Jan. 12, the Independent first reported that industry sources said Paxton paid $125 million, double The Herald-Sun's estimated value, when it bought the paper from the Rollins family last December. Financial pressure from the purchase might explain the abrupt nature of the firings, which Paxton officials said were necessary to make the newspaper profitable. That means that as the H-S grapples with aggressive new competition, any subsequent infusion of cash from Paducah looks unlikely.

Meanwhile, the N&O is in a highly unusual position for a competitor. Executives from McClatchy Newspapers, the Sacramento, Calif.-based chain that owns the N&O, were one of a small group of prospective buyers who were given complete access to information about the Herald-Sun's finances and market strategy. While standard legal agreements prevent those execs from sharing details with their Raleigh heads, it's clear that McClatchy is backing a Durham invasion with enthusiasm and financial support for new staff, deeply discounted subscriptions and extensive home delivery.

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